Sunny Alabama is blessed with an unusually long growing season, but fish and plants sooner or later have to be brought inside with the onslaught of cooler temperatures. This has deprived aspiring Alabama aquaponic producers with a key advantage compared with tropical countries that enjoy year-round growing conditions.

“If you plug a heater into the wall to support an aquaponics system, you’ll go broke eventually,” says Whitis. “There’s no way to justify that expense when raising a tropical species like tilapia in a temperate environment.”

But factoring in Alabama’s copious supply of wood products changes these dynamics.

“If you have 60 acres of timber with about 600 trees per acre and undertake a pre-commercial thinning that reduces these to 400 trees an acre, a lot of biomass falls to the ground,” Whitis says.

“A market for this wood would be appealing to some small timber owners.   Even though pine has a lower BTU rating compared to hardwoods, it will still heat water at a low cost.”

Other wood waste products are also comparatively cheap. For example, one Dallas County tilapia grower buys only bark slabs from a custom saw mill. The bark costs about $20 for 8,000 pounds, to heat his facility — an unusually cost-effective energy investment, Whitis says.

“About $20 worth of this forestry waste will cover four days of heating in a large scale indoor aquaculture facility, which amounts to $5 a day in heating costs,” he says. “Folks up north who have only electrical heating as a source can’t compete with that.

“And bear in mind: Clear cuts rank really high in the availability of low-cost biomass. All those hardwood tree tops are holding incredible amounts of low-cost energy.”

This point was underscored to Whitis while he operated an aquaponics project on an experimental basis, using a facility that had previously been used by the Hale County Vocational Center to teach aquascience.

But even while he perceives great potential for forestry waste as a heating source for the state’s emerging aquaponics industry, he stresses caution.

Asian producers hold two critical advantages over U.S. producers: long growing seasons and an inexpensive labor force, which provides a key competitive edge in processing, Whitis says.

“We can’t afford to grow tilapia and process them on a large scale too, at least until the American consumer is willing to pay a higher price for U.S-grown seafood.”

Currently, more than 99 percent of the tilapia products consumed in the United States — the kind bought from big seafood restaurant chains — are imported, according to Whitis.